Shiny Shelf

SHINY ADVENT: The Blue Carbuncle

By Jim Smith on 05 December 2006

The Jeremy Brett starring ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series remains probably the best ongoing drama series ever made by ITV. Now, given the general quality of Independent television’s output these days that might not sound like much of a claim, but there was a time when ITV 1’s former, more locally-minded, incarnation produced quite a lot of rather good stuff. The Brett series’ adaptation of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is one of its finest hours, despite the story itself not being one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes tales.

In both story and teleplay Holmes and Watson finds themselves disturbed on Christmas Eve and presented by the police with a goose and hat. Both are of unknown provenance and were dropped by a man in a street scuffle. When the goose turns out to contain the fabulously expensive (and recently stolen) gem of the story’s title in its innards, and the quickly uncovered man who dropped the bird turns out to have no knowledge of this fact, Holmes and Watson become involved in a festive quest to understand how the gem found its way into a poverty-stricken librarian’s Christmas dinner.

Doyle’s brief but solid narrative is expanded by the producers of the television version by the inclusion of vast amounts of material pertaining to a late Victorian Christmas. Scrupulously researched, it provides a window onto a period whose attitudes towards, and conventions around, the festive season perhaps shape our own to this day. There’s a hint of caricature in here, perhaps, but many of the details ring true. There are lovely scenes of Holmes bustling around Covent Garden, of characters joining ‘goose clubs’ in taverns so that they can afford to eat well at Christmas and of men trudging home through the blackening afternoon to prepare for the next day’s festivities. The episode creates a real feeling of Christmas as a remarkable event, embraced with enthusiasm by a population who had little leisure time, and scant oppurtunities to indulge themselves, across the rest of the calender year.

In the end the mystery is solved (and it requires some solid deduction from our sleuth) and up pops Ken Campbell to give a willingly ludicrous and dignity free performance as the hapless villain of the piece: one whom is promptly forgiven by Holmes in an uncharacteristic bout of Christmas cheer. (Brett’s mannered and cranky Holmes is as delightful as ever.)

The whole thing ends to the strains of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, which has always been a personal favourite of mine amongst more sickly traditional Christmas tunes. (I just like the melody, is all.)

The Brett/Burke ‘Blue Carbuncle’ is perfect Christmas viewing. It has some substance as well as atmosphere but it really gets the festive juices flowing. Watching it at any other time of year is as unthinkable as not trying to make time for a once a year viewing as the nights draw in.

This is something that seemed to pass ITV by back when they made it; it was inexplicably originally transmitted in June.

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